Dec. 12, 2012— -- A sheriff in an Alabama town knowingly allowed an alleged undocumented immigrant to act as a volunteer deputy sheriff. Meanwhile, his office went about the business of detaining and reporting suspected undocumented immigrants to federal authorities.
Canadian immigrant Kevin Dwight Venhuis has served as a reserve deputy sheriff for the Henry County Sheriff's Office for 25 years. Now he could face federal charges for illegally possessing firearms while being in the country without authorization, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
The investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security started when they received a tip that Venhuis was not in the country legally and was volunteering as a reserve for the sheriff's office. The tip said that he owned firearms and had a badge, and that he had police sirens and a police radio installed in his vehicle.
The agency confirmed Venhuis was in the country without authorization and arrested him on December 3, according to the arrest warrant. After he was picked up during a traffic stop, he allowed an agent to search his house for weapons. The agent found three handguns, a rifle and a shotgun, the warrant says.
Next, a grand jury will decide whether to issue an indictment or dismiss the charge. Venhuis could not be reached for comment.
Venhuis had tried to adjust his immigration status after marrying a U.S. citizen in 2004, but the application was denied in 2009 because he was no longer married, according to the arrest warrant. He divorced in 2007.
"He was a productive member of society here," said Henry County Sheriff William Maddox. "He had been paying income tax and had even been audited by the IRS...He had no intentions of breaking the law and he's never had any charges."
Sheriff Maddox said that he has been trying to help Venhuis find a pathway to legal status for years. At the same time, however, the sheriff's office has detained other suspected undocumented immigrants and held them for federal immigration authorities.
Maddox said that during his six years in office, he's called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement "to pick up some illegals and they wouldn't do it." He finds the current situation frustrating because of the enforcement priorities of immigration officials. "I'm sure there's more serious violators out there than this one."
Maddox says he was under the impression that Venhuis had legal status at one point, but had lost it with his divorce. An investigation by Homeland Security found no evidence that the reserve deputy sheriff had entered the country legally, according to the arrest warrant.
Henry County doesn't have many immigrants. Of it's 17,000 residents, 2.5 percent are foreign born, according to 2006-2010 data from the American Community Survey. The county is 68 percent white, 28 percent black, and 2 percent Hispanic of any race.
Alabama's anti-immigration law, modeled on the "show me your papers" law in Arizona, has tried to send a message to undocumented immigrants since its passage in June 2011. A federal court in Alabama struck down most of the law this August, but kept in place the provision that allows police to ask about immigration status during lawful stops.
The state has felt the impact. Some businesses have turned to recruiting legal immigrants, like refugees. In Henry County, farmers have complained about the lack of workers. "We did have a good many farmworkers," said Sheriff Maddox. "When the immigration law changed a couple years ago a lot of them moved to Georgia."
Immigration laws have become even more relevant for the sheriff's office now that a volunteer deputy is facing charges. For 62-year-old Sheriff Maddox, it's a sign that immigration laws need to be reworked.
"I think the new immigration laws are so complicated, so hard to enforce, that it all needs to be redone," he said. "This is a country of immigrants, there has to be some standard way that a person can come here, especially someone who is a productive citizen, and become a citizen and get a green card."